Lovano, Aldana and Helsinki stars at postponed April Jazz

Might as well be spring: delayed 35th April Jazz fest brings Melissa Aldana, Joe Lovano and local talent to a Helsinki suburb

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Melissa Aldana at Espoo, Finland with Mike Moreno in the background. Photo by Haappix

Odd as it was to head to April Jazz on a dark, rainy autumn night – two and a half years since the last one – there was plenty of light and heat inside the Espoo Cultural Centre. International jazz figures are still rare birds in Finland, but the postponed festival brought two stellar tenor saxophonists on the first night.

Joe Lovano took the main stage with Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s trio, which backed trumpeter Tomasz Stańko in his later years. In their first gig since releasing Arctic Riff on ECM last year, Lovano’s rich tenor started slowly with lyrical storytelling but gradually gained intensity and velocity. After a discreet start, Wasilewski, too, was fierier than on record, energising the others.

After a few Wasilewski compositions including Fading Sorrow, Lovano seemed more fired up to play his own tunes, like the free-tinged yet swinging On The Other Side from Arctic Riff and his 30-year-old Fort Worth. He began Carla Bley’s Vashkar with a velvety Ben Webster tone before taking off on flights of fancy and more mainstream post-bop. Drummer Michal Miskiewicz, who favoured soft mallets and brushes on the first few tunes, took on a more rock-like urgency, sparring with Lovano. Miskiewicz began one piece with hand drumming as Wasilewski strummed his piano strings for a zither effect.

Even more experimental and atmospheric was the encore, as Lovano’s sax moaned like wind blowing through an abandoned house in the desert, over muted lower piano keys and eerie bowed bass from Slawomir Kurkiewicz.

While the Lovano set took time to build, the next show, in a smaller club setting, was energetic from the get-go. After relocating from her native Chile, Melissa Aldana studied in Boston with Lovano. She started out with an unbelievably pure sound on Sofía, but later showed off a deep gruff sound too. For such a slight figure she was startlingly powerful, also capable of great poignancy. At one point she carried on a convincing call-and-response dialogue with herself, sounding so much like Sonny Rollins that she may have been practising on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge.

Aldana is a compelling composer, with Intention starting out as a slow blues before evolving into a shuffling march, and En Otro Lugar melodically combining dub and bossa nova. The only non-original was the Mingus ballad Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, lushly romantic with brushes.

Kush Abadey seemed to be steering the band like a Land Rover over a Mad Max desert scene, firing off warning shots on all sides while Aldana blasted triumphantly on the hood

Aldana played complex bop runs, sprouting like exotic flowers from an organic underbrush created by Chilean bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey, the surprise standout performer of the festival.  Without ever upstaging the leader, he kept the set rolling, resembling a more laid-back relative of Dustin Brown or Marcus Gilmore, subtly informed by funk and hip-hop. At times he seemed to be steering the band like a Land Rover over a Mad Max desert scene, firing off warning shots on all sides while Aldana blasted triumphantly on the hood, the other two strapped safely into the back seat.

Guitarist Mike Moreno’s Metheny-esque sound was pleasant enough but unsurprising. The interest level tended to drop when he began a solo, which often went on too long. His best moment was a needlework solo on the closing En Otro Lugar, which the leader ended with a long soaring high note.

Friday night gathered all five groups shortlisted for the latest Emma (local Grammy) jazz award, many of them finally playing their 2020 albums live for the first time – spurring thoughts of how the lull of the pandemic will shape jazz history. Perhaps like the 1942-44 US musicians’ recording strike, which spurred the decline of the big bands?

The evening’s first concert began with trumpeter Verneri Pohjola’s quartet featuring guest saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen. Then Pohjola and Lyytinen joined the Mortality supergroup project, a heartfelt fusion tribute by Eclipse Music founder Tapio Ylinen for his late wife.

The marathon moved downstairs to the more intimate club venue for the rest of the evening, starting with pianist Riitta Paakki’s quartet, showcasing her 2020 album Piste. It centres on toe-tapping mid-60s Blue Note-style hard-bop tunes like Fred, featuring a melodic bass solo by Antti Lötjönen. In this band, this top bassist pairs with drummer Joonas Riippa, forming an effervescent rhythm section that doesn’t play together enough.

The elegiac Rebecca brought Paakki’s most lyrical solo, in her modest unflashy style, ending with a moving coda duet with saxophonist Manuel Dunkel. Along with heartfelt ballads like Caruso, she offered a new song called Siskolle, written for her sister on an accordion by a lake last summer. Paakki’s real strength is as a composer, creating fresh originals that sound like they could be standards – and maybe someday will be.

Next up was drummer Jussi Lehtonen’s quartet, which also moved in familiar waters including 60s hard bop, playing tracks from their 2020 Connection and older material dating back to his days with the U Street All-Stars around 2004, the dawn of the current Helsinki jazz scene. The Estonian duo of Holger Marjamaa on piano and Heikko Remmel on bass were impressive, with the ebullient Marjamaa almost stealing the show. That’s not easy to do with a hard-driving leader like Lehtonen, his tall frame seeming to burst out from behind the drum kit.

Saxophonist Joonatan Rautio kept a low profile until the heated Chillin’, a savage yet controlled wilderness. After Marjamaa’s frenzied Chick Corea-like solo, Rautio swung in on a vine to show who was the king of this jungle. The tune shifted from bop to near-salsa, a soundtrack for a hot summer night. The band took a breather with the loungey Lullaby, Remmel offering a subtle, slithering solo, before Lehtonen wrapped it up with Bouncing With Julius from 2014, closing with an overlong solo.

The well-deserved winner of the Emma award was another drummer-led quartet, Olavi Louhivuori’s Superposition, featuring saxophonists Linda Fredriksson and Adele Sauros. Louhivuori leads his ensemble with a lighter touch, with the others sometimes forming a baroque framework for him to freely solo in his highly musical way.

Fredriksson was celebrating that day’s release of their solo debut Juniper, which also features Louhivuori and this band’s prolific bassist, Mikael Saastamoinen of OK:KO – who has also just released side projects with Perussastamala and Outomuru.

The band unveiled two new songs, including Saastamoinen’s Elfvik. It began as chamber music, gentle breathy saxophones dovetailing with bowed double bass for a string trio effect. A bouncy Mingus-like interlude was followed by an eloquent free-form solo by Fredriksson. That bodes well for the second album by Superposition, a quirky, utterly original band that push the boundaries of their instruments and themselves.

The festival’s final day brought a Sunday afternoon solo recital by pianist Aki Rissanen at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art. Rissanen has gone from being one of Finland’s best jazz pianists – with his own trio, Dave Liebman, Verneri Pohjola and others – to a new experimental level on Divided Horizon, released last summer on Edition.

He started out on a conventional grand piano, laying out elegant patterns that harkened back to Bach and Jarrett. Cold Code started out as conventionally lovely as George Winston’s 80s new-age piano – and then things started to get weird, fortunately. Rissanen added discreet electronics that took it into Steve Reich territory, a compelling architecture of icicles.

Things got even curiouser when Rissanen switched to a prototype Omniwerk, which reimagines two antique keyboard instruments with a motor that plucks and bows strings, sounding like a harpsichord, banjo, guitar or violin – but with a squirrelly edge that contrasts with his otherwise precise combination of jazz, classical and electronics. Fans of Nik Bärtsch, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, listen up.

April Jazz, Espoo, Finland, 27-31 October 2021. Some concerts online until 30 November at https://www.apriljazzfestival.com/online.